The Stage Names
rom the start, Okkervil River's music exemplified "ramshackle," to fling a much-flung term, all off-key and mildly unhinged. As the band developed, they managed to control that looseness with tighter recordings without sacrificing the intensity, even increasing their ability to put a rolling determination into the slow numbers (see the two versions of "The Velocity of Saul at the Time of His Conversion"). Will Sheff became a better vocalist without ever sounding like he knew what he was doing, and his ability to improve his lyrics from musical poems to beautiful logorrhea of bouncing rhyme and poetic prose enabled the band to grow through Black Sheep Boy, one of the decade's best albums.
But now they've gotten too good. Sheff knows how to write rock songs, and the band plays them well. It's all very professional, but the new album The Stage Names sounds more like a band trying to cut an indie rock album than crazed masterminds needing to create something. Where something lurked at the edges of previous releases, this album comes in a neat package: well-guarded and wry, artists competently displaying their hard-earned skill. It's all very professional, but no more meaningful than the titular appellations, the smile of a persona.
Maybe it matters less because they've gotten too good, or maybe the artifice just hides the fight. Sheff still can sing, "I want a kiss that's a sharp as a knife," and deliver it with "the dry, cracked trembling lips God saw fit to put this kiss inside." There's still a little darkness, a little significance, but maybe it just matters less now. Maybe after all that ramshackle and flinging of hurt, the fight comes down to the playfulness between rounds, the pause in the argument or the swimsuit girl with the card that says "3."
Because the band plays here, with intertextuality inside and outside of the album, as Marie graces across songs, amid the questionable seductions and the hints of violence. Maybe it's what lurks that matters less. What comes in from the edges is Sheff's knowledge of pop music, where he fills up a song with allusions like the "100th luftballoon," but it's just a game. They're trying to cut an indie rock album that knows all about knowing about rock albums. They're filling up inside with their plus-ones in various songs, like Black Sheep Boy's stone dropping from Marie, but they've lost their lyrical swirl in all the precision of the things that come in the package.
Hear the disc's most memorable moment: the interpolation of "Sloop John B." into the closing track about John Berryman and his fallen father. This is where the something used to lurk, the edges now given way to the wryness, to the play, the mood lightened, but the darkness itself cast into relief, so that it isn't really dark anymore. And when you see the darkness it doesn't matter. Maybe because it doesn't matter anymore, the band's gotten too good.
But, no, "too good" doesn't matter, and it doesn't hurt. "Unless It's Kicks" betrays the hand of this rock 'n' roll man, explaining that music doesn't matter, unless we think it does, and if we think it does together, then it matters. Sheff knows: "What gives this mess some grace unless it's kicks, mans—unless it's fictions, unless it's sweat or it's songs?" It's about a 1970s guitar riff and not worrying about getting out alive as long as we take it to heart that the song, and the singing, matter. To love necessitates believing the lie. To break again and yell, "Your love isn't lost," and "trying not to believe in that lie all on your own." It's pretending it matters, that it always has and that you believe in it—to run through all the play of pop because the darkness lurks anyway, because the darkness in relief casts another shadow.
Maybe the artifice is revelatory, and when the battle's brought to light, the punches flung show too much and mean too little. But showing one might only serve to hide what's in the other, so take a closer look and you'll find a precious stone to take away. If you need grace in the mess and the mess looks too clean, then you should let the singing get off-key. Your bands can be a little ramshackle and it won't matter whether you believe them or not.